When RACER asked me to write a preview column about Fontana after getting the opportunity to test there the previous week, I was reluctant. I’m not usually superstitious, but I knew how hard it was going to be at race weekend at Auto Club Speedway, despite getting to test, and I didn’t want to tempt fate. Editor David Malsher tried to convince me that a preview story allowed me to be positive, whereas a review would be very much dependent on results.
He pretty much had me convinced. Then the events of race two at Houston unfolded, followed by an extremely sad and difficult week for the entire motorsport community. Putting fingers to keyboard to talk about ?me? simply didn’t feel right. But asked again last Sunday for my reflections on Fontana, following a rough weekend for not only me, but our entire Dale Coyne Racing team, I figured I hadn’t shied away from writing tough columns before so why start now.
Coming into this race weekend at Fontana, I couldn’t wait. I had been counting down since stepping out of the car at Pocono, and having the opportunity to test a couple of weeks previous to the weekend along with the rest of the IndyCar field was a huge bonus. At the test I found the track tricky, bumpy, and very different to any other big D-shaped oval I had been on before, but I decided I liked the challenge. For someone from Indy Lights, running the bottom of the track on these big venues is often par for the course. However, at Fontana during the test, I found myself running the high line, right up by the wall. For the first time since I ever drove on an oval, I started to get comfortable up there, we felt we were improving and tuning the car.
My test had to end early due to a gear selection issue, but I had gotten up to speed, gotten valuable experience, and best of all, I’d been able to contribute. Given I was running Sonny’s logos at the test, and Dale was so involved with me having that opportunity, being a true second car providing information that could also be used by teammate Justin Wilson and his engineer Bill Pappas was hugely important to me. I know it’s been incredibly tough for those guys this year, to have so many of us switching in and out of the No. 18 car, and it was incredibly tough for everyone to stretch at add a third car for me at Indy too. However, everyone on the team has always gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, and a part of the organization ” something I am just as grateful for as getting back in an IndyCar in the first place.
I was looking forward to the first session. The 18 was dressed in her Cyclops Gear livery again, and we unloaded just as well as I had hoped. The front was a tad on the grabby side, and the rear a little neutral, but given the DW12 normally likes to be driven with a little bit of sideways going on, I didn’t think anything of it. Our car was releasing well from the corners, I was immediately up to speed and happy on the high line and running in the top 15.
So then I started working immediately on how my car would be in traffic, and experimenting with running lane 3, a lane lower than I had run in the test, but somewhere I would need to run to be able to make passes. I started to sneak up on the car in front of me, working that inside line in Turns 3 and 4, inching closer each lap. And then when I was about a car length behind him, really starting to plan and set up my pass, I caught the seam between lanes three and two with my inside front wheel.
Ah the seams. At the test I wondered what the big deal about them was. Sure, they were uncomfortable, and yes, I could see how, if you hit one, it could spin your car around as happened to Will Power the previous year. But as someone who hadn’t had an issue with them at the test, I didn’t think I was going to have an issue with them on race weekend.
Yup, that one really came back to bite me.
As my front wheel hooked onto the seam, the slight grabbiness I had been experiencing from the front of the car, and the slight neutralness from the rear suddenly became a huge issue. It was as thought I had been running on the bottom of the race track and dipped a wheel below the white line. The snap sideways was fast, and huge. For a couple of moments I had a four wheel drift going at 90 degrees to the track, as much opposite lock as I could get in the wheel, but she just kept coming around. Then the crunch as I found the wall for the first time in two years.
The DW12 did a great job absorbing the impact, and keeping me safe inside, but when I stepped out and saw the mess I had made of my car, I literally wanted to stop and put my head in my hands. My guys, my hard-working, accepting guys, who had looked after me so well every time I was in the car and made me feel so welcome out of the car, did not need that. My sponsor, Cyclops Gear, whom I had convinced to come on this IndyCar journey with me, my team owner Dale whom had been so good to me, and all of you whom are good enough to support me as fans ” I felt like I had let every one of you down, too.
Back in the garage area I actually wasn’t greeted with the pitchforks that I was expecting, but instead by an amazing crew already hard at work at putting the Cyclops Cyclone back together again. Justin told me he made the same mistake in pretty much the same place on the track in the first session there last year and had ended up missing qualifying. While I knew I wasn’t the first person to hit a seam the wrong way at Fontana and end up in a wall, knowing it could happen to someone as good as JW definitely made me feel a little less inclined to beat myself to a pulp for the incident. The other big issue my incident caused, of course, was Dale Coyne Racing was back down to one set of data only from the morning session, and that was entirely my fault.
I missed qualifying, and Justin had an electrical problem right as he was leaving pit lane. The car restarted, but then died again, so DCR had no cars on track for qualifying, and now the guys had not only to fix my car, but also diagnose the problem with Justin’s and put both back together again before the evening session. Not a fun first half of the day at the racetrack. As 6 p.m. drew closer, we started to get the decals back on my car, and Justin’s car started to go back together. The carbon fiber pieces lying between the two DCR trucks were a stark reminder to beware of the seems in the evening session.
The crunch with the wall hadn’t scared me or dented my confidence in my guys or my car, but it had subdued me. It also faced me with a dilemma. I would need the third lane in the race, but going down there hadn’t worked so well for me in the previous session. Should I dial it back and just run lane 4, and work on the car up there by the cushion? Or should I take a deep breath, pretend the morning never happened, and get my backside back down in that other lane, and risk the same thing happening again? Given I hadn’t run the morning session, and we had no data other than Justin’s, we also migrated towards his setup on my car. With only half an hour to tune it before the race, I needed to be back up to speed, and working things out fast.
The car had more understeer in the evening session which, given my mistake in the morning, was probably not a bad thing. However too much understeer is also slow, and treacherous, because then you have a lot of steering wheel input in when you hit the seams, and that doesn’t work out so great either! We dialed out the understeer, and worked to try and keep the rear secure and more planted to the racetrack than it had been in the morning. At the end of the session, I was relatively happy with what we had. I seemed to be running reasonable speeds, I was running the same pace as my teammate, and while we both wanted the car to be a little faster, the handling seemed to be not too bad at all. Over a 500-mile race, handling would be important.
Saturday was another beautiful California day, and I headed into the racetrack looking forwards to the night’s event. I thought we would have decent racecars, and I was looking forward to getting plenty of miles and experience under my belt. I was also hoping to try and bring home another top 15 as we had done in Pocono, and I thought I would have the car underneath me to do that. Some of you might think that’s a relatively humble goal. In all honesty I had been hoping for perhaps a top 10 on my way into the weekend, but after my skirmish with the wall, and losing all that track time, I readjusted my expectations to make sure they were based firmly in reality.
My car was not given rookie stripes this year, but given my limited experience in an IndyCar, and the few races I have gotten to run, I definitely feel like a rookie. Just to give you something to compare my situation with, Tristan Vautier, the full-time rookie for SPM this year, has run 3 times as many races in an IndyCar as I have, and five times as many in a DW12. But heading into the Fontana race on Sunday, he was classified as a rookie whereas apparently I am a grizzled veteran. When I look at a stat like that, it reminds me to give myself perspective sometimes.
As race time drew nearer on Saturday evening, I definitely started to get the usual butterflies. I’m not very communicative in the last hour or so before I get in the car, and this was no exception. I found out that due to engine changes from other drivers, and their resulting grid penalties I would be starting on the inside instead of the outside where we thought I’d line up. For someone who hadn’t liked being any lower than lane 3, that added to the usual nerves. My plan however was the usual: Let the start happen, settle in, then try and pick people off one by one.
As the green flag waved, I waited for a gap, then slotted onto the high side of the racetrack where the car had been comfortable all weekend and in our test. At first I thought the understeer I had picked up was due to the dirty air of the traffic in front of me, but quickly I realized that actually it was a trait we had managed to pick up again for no apparent reason other than the track deciding to change in the 24 hours since I was last on it. I was out of adjustments and tools just over halfway through my tire stint, and after that I was just trying to hang on. I could see JWil just a few cars ahead of me going through the same thing.
The first pit stop window finally opened, and we made a front-wing adjustment to the car. For the first five laps of my next stint I thought we had it, but then I started struggling again. I’m fairly good getting up to speed after a stop, but on my way into the pits, and into the pit box, and even a little on the first part coming out of the pits on the warm up lane, it still feels very much like a case of ?SPOT THE ROOKIE? all in capital letters. It’s something I really want to work on in the future, but on this occasion it meant I lost contact with that last group of cars I was trying hard to hang onto during the stop sequence. Now I was running up by the cushion the way I have seen my dirt track friends do, all by myself, and because I had been struggling for the first part of the race, and been slow at my stop, the leaders were coming.
In the dirty air, and the turbulent wake as I tried to make sure I was making it as easy as possible for all of us, I also found that some of the in cockpit adjustments I had tried to make for the understeer I was still carrying were also now making the rear unhappy too when I was being passed. I just had to grit my teeth, and hang on again until the next pit stop when we could give the Cyclops Cyclone some more front wing, and I could get rid of some of the weightjacker I had wound in.
My spotter radioed to tell me that Sebastian Saavedra in the 6 ahead of me was slow in turns 1 and 2, and he pulled down to the bottom of the racetrack indicating he was pitting just as I was coming into turn 3 on the top of the track. His car snapped violently, I saw sparks as the undertray hit the ground, and I immediately knew he must have had a tire go down. But as I stood on the brakes as hard as I could, his car continued to come up the banking after his spin, at a 90 degree angle to me, and his tire which had delaminated itself entirely from his rim was also headed my way. Up in the marbles, even higher than lane four now, trying to avoid both Seb and the stray tire, still hard on the brakes, I lost speed, but couldn’t avoid pancaking the wall.
I was absolutely gutted for my guys, gutted for my sponsor Cyclops Gear, and gutted for myself. But I was also gutted for Seb too. There was absolutely nothing the poor guy could have done, and while I did get collected in his incident, I was just glad I had managed to collect the wall only, and not him at all.
Despondently I headed to medical to be checked, then back to the garage area to see my guys. Thankfully this time there was only wishbone damage, and a few scratches to the sidepod, but given the car was already well inside the Leaders Circle thanks to everyone’s efforts throughout the year, the incident the previous day, how treacherous the track was, and how much we were struggling with the handling, it wasn’t worth the risk to try and change the wishbones and get back out there, however many laps down. The last thing you want at a place like that is to head back out with a car that’s not right.
I changed into my street clothes, and headed to pit lane as the crowd gasped. At first I didn’t know who was involved. Then I saw the replay. My teammate. The start of Justin’s spin looked almost like an exact replica of mine from the day before, same lane, same seam, but he spun in traffic and got collected by guys who had nowhere to go.
It took a long time to get him out of the car, and when they did he was on a backboard. We found out in hospital that he had a fractured pelvis from where he had been T-boned by another car that just couldn’t stop. Believe it or not, the fact that he was otherwise OK was a very small silver lining on what had turned into an incredibly rough weekend for the entire Dale Coyne Racing team.
So that was my weekend in Fontana. I am so thankful to have had the opportunities afforded me this year by Dale Coyne Racing and Cyclops Gear, and this is the first time all year in a Dale Coyne Racing car where I have had to work my butt off for handling. Those guys run great racecars so much of the time. It was also a reminder to me, that as much fun as I have had this year, and as much as I love being in a racecar, it’s not always ?kittens and rainbows? all the time when you’re behind the wheel! When you don’t get to get in a car very often, your opportunities to have a good weekend are fewer and further between. Of course the obvious solution to that problem is trying to get in a racecar more often… And with some of the fantastic people who have been a part of my partial season this year, that’s already something I’m working on.
Finally, I obviously want to congratulate Scott on another IndyCar championship. I first met Scott in 2009 when I moved to Indianapolis to race Indy Lights with Panther Racing, and he and Emma are both wonderful people. I feel for Helio ” second is such a tough position to be in, but at the same time, seeing Scott at PitFit all these years, getting to know the guy a little… I did have a horse in the race I was rooting for, and it was great to see him win the title. As someone who has been with Honda since I first stepped in an Indycar for the first time, I was also pleased to see them come away with the drivers title too – even though I know they would have preferred to come away with both! It’s been a pleasure working with HPD this year.
So that’s it for my 2013. However I will just say this. Hopefully my 2014 starts well before Jan 1st 2014…-Pippa